Updated March 28, 2017
A well-crafted mixture of grains and veggies encapsulates everything I dream of in a salad: It’s packed with texture, contains a wonderful balance of nuttiness and freshness and has enough boldness to support a variety of flavors. Grain salads make ideal side dishes, but it’s also tempting to toss in quick proteins like baked tofu, beans or diced eggs or ham to make one a light meal or to goose up leftovers.
Start with a tasty grain and it’s difficult to go astray, but there are a few tips you can keep in mind as you create your own. And for further inspiration you can peruse some of the best recipes for popular grains.
Mixing Bowl 101
Grains are typically tan or brown, so having one or two colorful ingredients as a contrast is helpful. This can be as easy as making sure you have a green like arugula or some sliced scallions, or you can venture into the red and yellow spectrum with colorful bell peppers, diced or grated carrots, or even beets.
A contrast in textures will add interest to your salad. Crisp veggies like celery, fennel and cucumber are excellent standbys. Nuts are also a delicious way to add crunch, as are larger seeds like green pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
Consider a sweet element in your salad for further depth of flavor. Fresh fruits like diced oranges or apples, blueberries, halved grapes, or any number of dried fruits can heighten the savory flavors of the ingredients around them.
Finally, pay special attention when you season your salad. Unless you need to watch your sodium intake, use a fairly generous amount of salt, and you’ll almost always want to spike your dressing with a good dose of acid like vinegar or lemon. Then be sure to taste the salad just before serving it: Grains have a tendency to absorb flavor quickly, and a salad that tasted bright and balanced when you mixed it can taste flat even 10 or 15 minutes later.
Plump, sweet wheat berries are one of my absolute favorite grains to use in salads. Their firm, almost bouncy texture means they hold up extremely well, which is handy if you want to mix up your salad even a day or two ahead. And although wheat berries take a bit longer to cook than most whole grains (about an hour), their sturdiness means they freeze exceptionally well–make a double or triple batch for efficiency and store the extras. Put your bounty to work with great recipes like:
Quinoa’s popularity is almost unmatched in the world of grains, and with good reason: Not only is it a great option for those who avoid gluten, it’s also particularly high in protein and visually appealing. To really enjoy its looks you can venture beyond the common white quinoa and seek out red quinoa and black varieties for contrast. And if you’re looking for a shortcut, precooked quinoa is often available in the frozen food aisle and needs only a quick thaw. Quinoa stars in these great recipes:
Hearty whole-grain rice or wild rice are classics for salads, imparting a delicious (and gluten-free!) nuttiness that makes them a popular addition. But be aware that rice is a bit temperamental to cook ahead of time: You may find it becomes a bit soggy or gummy if it sits dressed for much longer than a few hours. Likewise, you can make batches ahead and freeze them, but you should expect a slightly softer texture than fresh-cooked rice. Wild rice is an exception: Its grains are sturdy and stand up well to just about any treatment. Get your rice fix with:
You can’t go wrong with barley as a grain for you salad. For decades I only encountered this delicious grain in anything but soups, where it was admittedly terrific, but using it in salads gives me a whole new appreciation for it. When it’s not submerged in broth you’re likely to find its texture unexpectedly firm and distinctively snappy, and its flavor subtly sweet and mild. Enjoy these qualities in:
This ancient grain is fast gaining popularity and is ideal for grain salads. Farro has a bold, distinctive flavor and appealing texture with a hint of chewiness. You’ll find it makes a good substitute for more common barley or wheat berries. Seek it out and give it a try in: